Tag: trails

Painting with light: A step forward to creative photographs

You might have probably heard that photography is an analog to painting, only that photographers use light instead of paint. While the title of this post can bring that to your mind, what I want to talk about here is about ways to manipulate light sources, or your camera, in order to alter the static nature of photography.

When you press the shutter button of your camera, you are basically letting light from different sources reach your sensor and that light is transformed into images by means of something called the photoelectric effect. Without getting into many details, if you alter the relative position or the intensity of the light sources while the shutter remains open, these changes will have a noticeable effect on your final image.

That said, there are different ways to achieve that alteration. In broad terms, you can either alter the location or intensity of the light source or you can alter the location of your camera. Let’s take a look at some examples of each case.

Changing your light source

In photography, you can have two types of light source, namely natural and artificial. Natural light sources can include the Sun, the Moon, the stars, fires or reflection of any of them from objects in your scene. Artificial light can include pretty much anything else like car lights, street lights, torches, etc.

So moving your light sources can include, for instance, capturing light trails from moving objects like cars, bicycles, planes, boats or even artificial satellites. For this, of course, you need to set your camera on a tripod and set the shutter speed of your camera to a low value, usually on the order of seconds. The rest is just about composition.


Other classical moving subjects include different rides on amusement parks, fireworks and small objects like torches or cell phones (with these you can actually draw things in front of your camera). Basically, anything that moves and can be included within a composition you like will completely change the nature of the final image so try many different things. Most of the times (not always) you will like the rest of your scene to be illuminated, so it usually is a good idea to take these photos during the so-called blue hour (about an hour after sunset or one hour before sunrise), while there still is some ambient light available.

When talking about natural light sources, with some few exceptions, capturing the motion of the light sources will require significantly longer exposure times. Unless you are taking photos of short-lived events such as a falling meteorite, to capture the motion of any celestial body you will need to set the exposure time to at least about 15 seconds. If you want to capture star trails, you will have to take either one single photo with very long exposure time (about 3 or 4 hours) or take several shorter exposures (about 1 minute) for 3 or 4 hours and combine them afterward during post-processing.


Moving your camera

A usually much less explored option is to move your camera while taking the photo. The reason why this is a less common approach is simply because it is much harder to get good results. While completely blurred subjects can be an interesting approach to explore, for an image to work in the sense of capturing the viewer’s attention, it usually is important for it to contain an easily identifiable subject. With the exception of abstract photography, you want your image to show something that the viewer can relate to and, if you move your camera while the shutter is open, this can be hard to achieve.


So you basically need a way to get your camera to move with respect to the environment while being able to decently track at least parts of it. The most common way to achieve this is by mounting your camera on a fixed position of a moving object (car, train, etc.) or also by using a timelapse slider, although these will usually provide a rather slow movement, making it harder to come up with a nice composition.


Another way of using the motion of the camera to capture dynamism is by using the panning technique. This involves capturing a photo of a moving subject following it with the camera as it passes by, with a shutter speed slow enough so that the background appears blurred. This is a very common technique in sports photography, especially in motor sports.

Using Lines In Your Compositions – Photography for Beginners

Given the inherent optical nature of photography as an art, geometrical shapes are ubiquitous. However, using some shapes intentionally in your compositions can greatly improve your final results. In this post I want to talk about lines and how to use them on your favor.

First of all, when I say lines I mean both straight and curved ones. There are different situations where you can benefit from either of them and when and where to use them will depend on the specific elements present in the photo you are trying to take.

Guiding the viewer’s eye

One of the most useful, abstract and at the same time common ways of using lines is in such a way that they guide the viewer’s eye to a given spot in your composition. Even if you don’t actively try, chances are that you have a couple of photos in your personal collection where you actually made good use of lines that were present at the location for this purpose. The reason is simple. They not only work once the photo is produced, but also when you look at the scene in real life. Having those lines there will actually help catch your attention and decide to make a photo in the first place.


The human brain has a natural tendency to find patterns and follow edges. In fact, if you think about how we actually follow any moving object, what we basically do is follow the shape given by a closed line forming the edge of that given object. This way, when we are presented with an image where strong lines are present, our eyes will naturally tend to follow those lines and, if your main subject (or an important one at least) is located at the end of those lines, the viewer will automatically pay special attention to that subject, making it easy for you to declutter your image.

Natural frames

Another appealing use of geometrical shapes is to frame a photo. It is obvious that we humans like frames. Otherwise, most of the art in museums and photos hanging on our walls would not have different types of frames. It actually is pretty common to find photos posted on the internet with some sort of digitally created frame around.


Nature and man-made structures can provide very appealing frames as well. Be it the arches of a bridge, a natural rock formation or even the frame of a window, using lines to frame the main part of your image can provide a completely new point of view and drastically change your original composition, sometimes for better but sometimes for worse.


Architecture photography, by definition, is full of geometric elements. While older styles like Gothic (e.g. Cologne cathedral in Germany) are more cluttered, modern architecture tends towards a more minimalist approach and straight lines are present everywhere. This allows you as a photographer to create interesting compositions where you can used those lines again to guide the viewer’s eye towards a specific point, or simply produce abstract images that sometimes are classified as fine art (these work especially good in black and white). Some styles like the Baroque (e.g. St. Peter’s Basilica) contain arches and large columns that can also help you achieve interesting effects both in terms of including the lines formed within your composition or using them as frames.


Another type of structures that are definitely worth looking at are bridges. Once again, modern and older bridges present completely different shapes and lines that can help you create images out of the ordinary. As with everything in photography, one of the most important (and frequently overlooked) aspects is looking at things from non-conventional points of view. This will help you both develop your own style and train your eye to get interesting compositions faster as you practice more and more.

Light trails

A great option to create dynamism and lines in any image is by using light trails. Depending on the path followed by the light source (cars, bikes, planes, etc.), the lines left behind can be straight or curved and they have the power of capturing the attention not only due to their shape but also because of their bright nature.


In general, while lines will always be present in your images in some way or another, actively thinking about how to use them when composing an image will provide you with new ways of looking at your subjects, so next time you are out making photos, remember to look for them and have fun!

Long exposure photography – Step by Step Guide

This entry is about long exposure photography: How to capture light trails, motion in clouds or water and basically any other factor that adds dynamism to a picture.

When capturing a striking landscape or cityscape, if we carefully choose the point of view, the static scene itself will have enough elements to capture the viewer’s attention. However, we can always add some extra appeal by including some dynamic element.

There are some techniques in Photoshop to mimic some of these effects, but I certainly prefer to capture those with the camera. This way not only makes the post-processing simpler, but it also remains more truthful to the original scene we tried to catch. It is for this reason that I will not talk about artificial long exposure on this post.


As a general rule (one that I would say will become obsolete relatively soon), long exposure usually works better with DSLR cameras. I know that technology is evolving quite fast nowadays. In fact, if I am not making justice to mirrorless cameras here, please forgive me; it’s been a while since the last time I used one! However, the main issue right now with compact cameras (including cell phones) is that they do not always allow the user to play with all the settings the way it is needed and the signal to noise ratio under low light conditions tends to be rather low when compared to DSLRs, especially with full frame ones.

But to be fair, let’s say that if your camera has a manual mode, then you will be able to follow everything I say here, so here we go.

Capturing light trails

Given that the workflow is the same for whatever moving subject you want to capture, I will describe, step-by-step, how to capture light trails.

Basically, light trails are just that. Trails left by moving light sources that could include passing cars, trains, planes, artificial satellites or even stars. The basic principle to create interesting images with all of them is the same: find a nice location with an interesting background or foreground (depending on what’s on your mind) and correctly configuring the settings on your camera, which of course will include leaving the shutter open for a relatively long time (the time will actually depend on the motion we are trying to capture).

Camera settings

So let’s consider the settings that we need to take into account when dealing with long exposure photography. These are:

  • Light sensitivity (ISO).
  • Exposure time.
  • Aperture (f-number).

Light sensitivity refers to exactly that. How sensitive to light your sensor is going to be while capturing an image. The name ISO (International Standards Organization) comes from the distant times when film photography was the norm. Back then, different films had different sensitivity based on the way they were produced. Now, without getting into technical details, your camera is able to capture almost as much light as desired, but unfortunately at a given price. When you choose a large ISO number, the camera applies some sort of multiplication factor to increase the captured number of photons (after all, that is what light is about, photons!). That sounds like a clever thing to do. However, camera sensors have an intrinsic level of noise that will also be multiplied by that same factor, thus producing noisy (a.k.a. grainy) images. For this reason, I would suggest always leave the ISO as low as possible (100 is a good value to start with).


Exposure time, as briefly mentioned above, is the time during which the shutter of your camera will be left open, allowing light to get into the sensor. This is usually given in seconds but beware: for short exposure times (shorter than a second), the number you see is the fraction of a second; for instance, if you see a 500 (could also be 1/500 depending on the camera), that means that the shutter will be left open a 500th of a second. When you go to longer exposure times, then the number shown will be seconds. Most DSLR cameras get down to 30 s and if you want to get even longer exposures, a so-called “bulb” mode is offered. In this mode, the shutter will be open as long as you press the shutter button (for this you should get a remote shutter release!).

Finally, the aperture is how much will the diaphragm of your camera will open. This has nothing to do with time, but rather with the physical area through which the light will go through. Now, to make things even more complicated, the way the aperture is defined makes it that the larger the f-number, the smaller the aperture, but I will explain a bit more later on.

So now we know what to take into account but, how do we capture the image we want?

In terms of exposure time, anything between a couple of seconds and a couple of minutes might work depending on the scene. If you are after a photo of a landmark with trails from passing cars like the already famous capture of London buses passing in front of the Houses of Parliament, then a couple of seconds are enough. This one, for instance, was captured with an exposure time of 1.6 s:


If what we are trying to capture is the light trails left by cars on a busy street, then it might make sense to push the exposure time a bit further, basically because that way the density of lights will increase, making the final result more interesting. The following one of Atlanta’s skyline at sunset was captured with an exposure time of 13 s:


Notice that here we can increase the number of light trails without loosing information on the image simply because, in contrast to the image from London, the subject of the photo are not behind the passing cars. Also notice the motion of the clouds, another interesting element that can be captured with long exposure.

So enough for exposure time. What is the role of the other element, namely the f-number? Well, for our purpose here, it has two main functions. One, compensate the exposure to get the exposure time we want to work well. In order to capture a well-balanced picture, the right amount of light needs to reach the sensor. Now, simply put, the right amount of light will be defined as a balance between the exposure time and the aperture you choose. It is quite an intuitive thing: if the aperture is large (small f-number), we will need a certain amount of time (relatively short) to get the desired light to reach the sensor. If the aperture is small (large f-number), then we will need to increase the time to get the same amount of light to get in!


Fortunately, we don’t need to calculate that since the camera already does that for us. What we need to look at is a small sequence of lines in the viewfinder or camera screen (called a photometer) that indicates how much light will reach the sensor with the current settings.

The other purpose is to create the star-like appearance on light sources and that you can see on the street lights in the two images above. Some people prefer not to get this, but I personally like it. To get this effect, you need to keep the f-number as large as possible. I would say above 16, as a general rule.


To the things described above, I need to add a couple of important things. First, use your tripod! It does not have to be a $500 tripod. A relatively basic one will do the job, but if you want to capture anything that moves without getting a blurred image, you will definitely need a tripod. And second, set a waiting time for the shutter of your camera to be released. Most cameras offer a 2 s or a 10 s option. The 2 s option is enough. The idea is to give a delay between the moment when you press the button and when the shutter is released to avoid the shaking produced by you pressing the button to blur the image.

And as a final step, you can process your images with Lightroom or Photoshop to enhance the information and details that are hard to capture at those times where the natural light is starting to fade.


So to summarize in a way easier to remember, if you want to capture light trails:

  1. Find a location with a nice subject that is behind a street.
  2. Wait until the time is right; you want the cars to have the lights on!
  3. Set your tripod.
  4. Set your camera to manual mode.
  5. Set the ISO to 100.
  6. Start setting your exposure time at around 5 s.
  7. Set the f-number accordingly to get a good reading in your photometer.
  8. Take the picture.
  9. Play with the exposure time to get the desired effect.
  10. Get that final look you are after by processing your files.

That’s it. Go out there and try this. Even when it might look a bit complicated in the beginning, you will get it in no time and capturing light trails can be a really fun experience and once you master these techniques, try combining them with other great ideas for night photography such as bokeh.